As with many African capital cities, Addis Ababa, bears little resemblance to the rest of the country because it is so much more developed. Most visitors arrive by air, at Bole International Airport, many of them on the country’s iconic 60-year-old national airline, Ethiopian Airlines, attracted by its wide range of international and domestic destinations, competitive fares and constantly improving facilities, including a free shuttle bus into town.
At first sight, Addis shows few of the unique qualities that set Ethiopia apart from its neighbours in sub-Saharan Africa. Visitors often remark on the street-map-altering amount of construction work being undertaken (mainly by the Chinese) and the preponderance of foreign aid-related vehicles.
Since Addis Ababa is the headquarters of both the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the African Union Authority (formerly the Organization for African Unity), as well as a base for many other international relief organizations, there are usually a number of international conferences going on, and hotel space cannot always be guaranteed.
Development of Addis Ababa
There was little but nomadic military camps in the area before Addis Ababa was established as the capital by the Emperor Menelik II in the late 1880’s. Its altitude (2,400m/7,800ft), guarantees an equable climate, and the surrounding hills were planted with eucalyptus forests to ensure a supply of firewood.
Little real planning went into its development and points of interest are widely scattered. The nearest thing to a centre is the north-south axis of Churchill Avenue, at the north end of which is Meskal Square, a large open space which comes to life on national or religious festival days, in particular at Ethiopian New Year (Sept) and Christmas (January).
Getting Around Addis Ababa
Walking in daylight in the main avenues is as safe as most capital cities.
Distances between sites are considerable, and pavements/sidewalks often rough and inclined to peter out into muddy puddles in the rainy season (June to September) and sand and rubble at drier times.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful, as are blue and white minibus services.
Notable Addis Ababa Museums
- Ethiopian National Museum, illustrating Ethiopia’s long history and its famous battles both internal and external.
- Ethiopian Ethnological Museum, in a former emperor’s palace and home to the skeleton of ‘Lucy’, one of mankind’s oldest ancestors.
- Ethiopian Natural History Museum showing the country’s amazing geological history and wildlife.
Addis Ababa Religious Sites
- St George’s Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral (1896), Piazza, near Meskal Square. The last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was crowned here, and there is a small museum with imperial memorabilia.
- Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral, Portuguese in style, constructed 1928-1942, off King George Street. Its Amharic name is Kidist Selassie, and Haile Selassie is buried here.
- St Stephen’s Church, near the Ghion Hotel.
Other Addis Ababa Attractions
- Africa Hall conference centre for the African Union, for with modern stained glass windows, on Meskal Square.
- The Mercato, one of Africa’s largest covered markets to the north west of the city is vast, chaotic, colourful and multi-ethnic, even by African standards. Travellers’ tips include taking lots of small-denomination notes, and a guide for bargaining and finding the way out.
- A slightly larger than life replica of ‘Sebastapol’, the great gun of Emperor Teodros, used in the Siege of Magdala (1868) on a traffic island in Churchill Avenue.
- Lion of Judah statues, along Churchill Avenue and near the old railway station (Le Gare), commemorating that the claim that the emperors of Ethiopia were descended from King Solomon.
Addis Ababa is in the process of re-inventing itself as Africa’s Capital City. It can be challenging place to explore (see Ethiopia Travellers’ Tips for avoiding a well-known Addis scam) but is very rewarding for the insights it gives into Ethiopia’s culture and its long and fascinating history.